Wired In: Kathleen Hu

Wired In: Kathleen Hu

Each week, staff writer Paul Wood chats with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet KATHLEEN HU, a University of Illinois student who is heading the technology side of DIBBS, a start-up to fight hunger and reduce food waste. Her web platform connects food retailers to food pantries so that excess food doesn't go to waste.

Are you graduate students? Did your academic work contribute to this start-up?

I'm an undergraduate student studying systems engineering. Engineering courses teach solving problems, which is an important skill in a start-up.

Who else is on the team?

Sohinee Oswal is the chief operating officer and Devaki Belwalkar is head of operations.

How did you get the idea to start the company?

DIBBS started as an app to sell end-of-the-day food at restaurants to consumers at reduced prices. I got the inspiration for that when a friend introduced to me an app that did something similar while we were living in Paris. I wanted to bring it back to Champaign because it's a great idea. As we worked in the food space, we found an alternative market to make a bigger impact and pivoted to the grocery-store/food-agency model.

What inspired you to fight hunger in the community?

As I was growing up, my mom would take me volunteering, and helping others became an instilled priority for me. Food is a basic human necessity, and it doesn't make sense that so much food is wasted at the same time 1 in 7 Americans is food insecure.

How does DIBBS help with this?

DIBBS connects surplus food at grocery stores to the local food agencies that need it.

What does DIBBS do that nothing else does?

DIBBS deals predominately with near-shelf-life food and provides a streamlined transaction experience. For grocery stores that already donate their surplus food, the current solution is a pickup from food banks. The food then needs to be distributed again to the agencies that will serve it to the community. Because of the nature of the food we're dealing with, much of it gets wasted along the way. Each day in transition is important. In addition, we provide transparency in the process. Grocery stores can see where their donation goes and receive impact reports to boost their brand internally and externally.

How did you come up with that name?

During a late-night work session, the team was tossing out names. DIBBS stuck, was catchy and related to food.

You've been working with two grocery stores in Champaign-Urbana, Common Ground Food Co-Op and Fresh International Market, and they say you've already saved a ton of food in the community. How is it going?

To date, we've saved over 1,000 pounds of food and created hundreds of meals for those in need. We couldn't have done it without our amazing ongoing partnerships with Common Ground Food Co-op and Fresh International Market and with the many food agencies who are doing the pickups and amazing work in our community. It's incredible seeing our real impact beyond the scope of just feeding people. Community members have told us the new, diverse foods available bring a feeling of familiarity and remind them of the countries they're from. Food-agency officers have told us how we're directly helping them with their food budget and to serve more nutritious food. We're really grateful to be a part of this process. Our next step is expanding our impact.

How will you expand your efforts?

We're developing our technology platform with an anticipated release to be early next year. This will allow us to scale our process to incorporate more grocery stores both locally and nationally. There is so much food waste and hunger around the world, and these problems are growing.

How about venture capital? Do you have any UI funding?

Funding from the UI's iVenture Accelerator.

What's your best advice for someone who's starting up?

The hardest part for me was going for it all in. My advice would be to remove back-up plans. (For me, this was declining a return offer and not interviewing for summer opportunities.) This isn't an option to everyone, so it depends on each person's personal situation.

Have you ever make any mistakes you've been able to learn from?

I've learned about the importance of mind-set, positivity and appreciation, health and quality of people around me.

What's in the future for your company?

We aim to expand geographically and be really good at the vertical we're in, before possibly taking on more of the food waste market in other parts of the supply chain.

TECH TIDBITS ... with KATHLEEN HU

Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I use Google Calendar religiously. I love blocking my time, because it reduces my stress when I know I've scheduled a time to work on something. This also allows me to be fully present in the moment. I follow DIBBS on Facebook, of course.

Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? I'm currently reading "The Sound and The Fury" by William Faulkner, but usually I'm reading non-fiction on behavioral economics, understanding how people work, and how to be a better leader.

Do you have any wearable electronics? No.

Do you have an entrepreneur hero? Stephen Ehikian, Adam Tilton and Ryan Singh are entrepreneurs who've given me amazing, real-life advice and mentorship.

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